Saturday, November 30, 2013

Extra Awesome (& Some Less than Awesome) Autumnal Eats - Part 1

I had a realization that I have essentially been the worst wannabe blogger of all time because I have not posted in 19 days... eek! Don't worry, world... I'm not dead! My lack of posting has not been for a lack of eating and I have an increasingly tight waistband on my pants to prove it. Here are some of my most recent culinary observations from my adventures around the Old North State.

Favorite Re-Discovery

This morning, BFTB collected on a bowling-related bet by demanding that I take him out to brunch. Without hesitation, he suggested that we hit up Leroy Fox's off Sharon Amity Rd. I've been to Leroy Fox's before and never really thought it was that memorable of an experience, but I, admittedly, was pretty freaking hungover, so I went in with an open mind (and stomach) and fortunately, was not disappointed. First of all, I'm a big fan of the aesthetic of the restaurant -blending hipster and new-Southern influences, it's cool and comfortable without being pretentious. The restaurant was also adorned with really cute winter and woodland creature-themed decorations while a modern blend of holiday music (She and Him, Joey Ramone, etc.) pumped through the dining area. I felt like I was at an uber-trendy Christmas party.... and I was really into it.

Our server, Jon, came over and gave us a quick run down of the menu. Apparently brunch (and the super awesome special of $12 all-you-can-drink mimosas) is only served on Sundays, so we had to order off the dinner menu (there's no lunch menu on the weekends). After I got over my visceral, "OMG-all-I-wanted-was-chicken-and-waffles" reaction to the lack of breakfast-y options, I settled on ordering the Shrimp Po'Boy with the Mac & Cheese (upon detecting my hesitation in my side selection, Jon very kindly offered that if I didn't like the mac, he'd happily exchange it for the cheesy grits) while BFTB went with Leroy's BLGTA sandwich and side of succotash, today's seasonal veggie option. 

Left: BLGTA & side of succotash; Right: Shrimp Po'Boy and side of mac & cheese

Our food came out quickly and we dug in with enthusiasm. Hangovers can go either way with me -food either tastes God-awful or absolutely amazing, and I fortunately was dealing with the latter situation. BFTB's BLGTA (consisting of applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, pickled green tomatoes, mayo & avocado on toasted multigrain bread) was good (especially the pickled green tomatoes) and definitely re-orderable, but my Po'Boy (fried shrimp, lettuce, sliced tomato, red onion, house remoulade, and boom boom sauce on a toasted hoagie roll) was the winning sandwich. First of all, it looked just like the picture online -a major plus in my book. Second, it tasted phenomenal. While the carbohydrate component was a little overbearing (I ended up taking off the top bun and eating the sandwich open-faced), it was otherwise great. The shrimp were large and perfectly fried so that they were a little spicy, delightfully crunchy, and not at all greasy. The boom boom sauce and remoulade were also zippy and present in the perfect quantity so the sandwich had just enough creaminess without turning into a sloppy, goopy mess. Combined with the fresh veggies, it really was close to between-the-bun perfection. The creamy mac & cheese was also good, especially after I gave it a few heavy-handed shakes of some Texas Pete. While I'd normally opt for a breadcrumbed-and-baked variety of mac over a smooth rendition, it's lack of heaviness was nice. BFTB's succotash was also tasty (likewise with the addition of a solid tablespoonful of Texas Pete), but the mac won the best side award. 

Even though I'm still jonesing to satisfy my Chicken & Waffles fix, Leroy Fox's Shrimp Po'Boy was a delightful substitute and I will happily re-order the sandwich on a future visit. For casual eats, Leroy Fox's gets a strong 8.5/10.

Leroy Fox on Urbanspoon

Best Bargain Sushi
The concept of "bargain sushi" usually makes me a little squeamish, but I'm pretty pleased with the BOGO selections at Akahana Asian Bistro in Plaza Midwood. While my recent obsession with orcas (holy cow, if you have not watched "Blackfish" or read David Kirby's "Death at Sea World" drop everything and do both right now) makes me find Akahana's logo (which appears to be the silhouette of a whale inside a flame) to be a little disturbing, everything else is pretty pleasing at this budget-friendly Central Avenue joint. 
Top Left: Gulf to Bay Roll & Spider Roll; Top Right: Orange Blossom Roll & Spider Roll;
Bottom: Cherry Blossom Roll & Alaska Roll

It is by no means the best sushi, but it's far better than grocery store sushi, all the rolls are buy-one-get-one-free (even for take out), and your meal can cheaply be accompanied by a $6 glass of pretty decent vino. Any place where I can pound feesh and grape in one setting is A-okay in my book. 

My favorite rolls are the super fatty Gulf to Bay Roll (tempura shrimp and cream cheese topped with smoked salmon, spicy mayo, scallions, and eel sauce), the extra massive Spider roll (soft shell crab, cucumber, lettuce, spicy mayo, and masago), and the Orange Blossom Roll (spicy tuna and avocado wrapped with salmon) while BFTB favors the Cherry Blossom Roll (spicy salmon and avocado wrapped with tuna), the Sakura Drop Roll (white tuna, eel, and cucumber, topped with yellowtail and wasabi yuzu sauce), and the Alaska Roll (snow crab and smoked salmon wrapped with thin slices of avocado). For sushi, Akahana gets a 6.5/10.

Akahana Asian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Will Travel for Beef
Recently, my office sent me up to Asheville for a long "work" weekend at the Grove Park Inn (sounds awful, right?). BFTB and I have taken three trips to Asheville in 2013 (the first trip was to see Jerry Seinfeld and the second was to check out an art gallery), but this one was by far our best on the eating front. After over-serving ourselves on cocktails the previous evening, a coworker and I shared a hungover lunch at Farm Burger on Patton Avenue. The line to order at the register was out the door, but fortunately we were able to snag two seats at the full-service bar and skip everybody in line (insert evil laughter and finger tenting). We both chose to build our own burgers (a blue cheese, onion ring, and pork belly-topped variety for me and a smoked gouda, bacon, roasted garlic, and pickled jalapeno-topped option for my compadre) and gorged ourselves on garlic fries, and I knew I had to bring BFTB back to check the restaurant out. Within 24 hours, BFTB and I returned and placed equally carnivorous orders - a jalapeno, caramelized onion, and pepper jack burger for BFTB, an apple slaw, pork belly, and Wisconsin cheddar burger for me, and an order of rings n' fries to share. BFTB's inner hipster came out (we were in Asheville, after all) and he ordered himself a nice, foamy PBR while I ordered a glass (it was literally served in a juice glass) of some barely tolerable local varietal of red wine.

Top Left: Farm Burger's cute hand-stamped paper placemats and a glass of red wine; Middle Left: burger topped with jalapenos, caramelized onions, and pepper jack; Bottom Left: garlic fries; Bottom Right: Rings n' Fries; Top Right: burger topped with beer battered onion ring, pork belly, and blue cheese

Burger topped with Wisconsin cheddar, apple slaw, and pork belly.

Aside from the crappy wine selection (but what was I really expecting at a quick-serve burger joint?), the menu at Farm Burger is pretty spectacular. One of the best things about Farm Burger is that the chefs meticulously cook your burger to order. The standard is a perfect medium -pink in the middle and perfectly juicy, but they'll change your meat temp upon request. I'm pretty passionate about the cooking of my meats. Of course, I hate E. coli like any normal human, but I hate people's fear of E. coli even more than any actual food-borne illness. One of my biggest pet peeves is ordering a burger and being served a ground up, charred-to-a-crisp, wad of a meaty substance formerly known as beef. I've had amoebic dysentery before (I studied abroad in Guatemala during college) and it's pretty God-awful, but health inspectors (hopefully) keep that ish in check here in first world countries. While I wouldn't want a Mickey D's patty to be served at anything other than well-done, at good restaurants, it is perfectly okay to order some kinda bloody meat! So THANK YOU, Farm Burger, for actually preparing a glorious, juicy, deliciously-seasoned burger that is cooked to an appropriate (and predictable) level of done-ness. The super fantastic meat combined with thirty-seven (count em!) exciting topping options led to Farm Burger putting out the second most delicious burger I ate in all of 2013 (the most delicious is the Shiitake & Gruyere Burger at Block & Grinder in Charlotte). The cheeses were creamy and delicious, the veggies were all fresh and crisp, and I cannot physically rave enough about the insane deliciousness of both the pork belly and the apple slaw. The pork belly was rich, salty, perfectly cooked (not too dry and not too rubbery), and served in a nice, respectable-sized hunk. The apple slaw was shredded into julienned-sized strips and was vinegary, tart, and sweet without being too wet or sloppy, even in the massive quantity in which it was served. Its sweetness provided a perfect complement to the salty and savory components of my sandwich.

As for our sides, the fries were good, especially the garlic fries I tried during my first visit, but they were a little too greasy for my taste. However, the giant, beer-battered onion rings were exceptional -they remained intact after taking a bite (I hate when I eat an onion ring and slippery onion flops out of a floppy, ring-shaped clod of batter upon first chomp) and were somehow not as greasy as their French fried buddies. All in all, Farm Burger will be on my "must visit" list for any return trips to Asheville and I can't wait to craft even more meaty concoctions off of the chock-full-o-options menu board. For burgers, Farm Burger gets an exceptionally strong 8.75/10.

Farm Burger on Urbanspoon

Will Also Stay Local for Beef
For times when I'm craving a burger but am a little less mobile (my V Dub just hit 100K miles and I'm feeling the need to be extra careful with the little guy as of late), I'm lucky enough to have two pretty tasty carnivorous options that are susbtantially closer to home: Kickstand Burgers -n- Bar and Bad Daddy's Burger Bar. Honestly, I have a tough time deciding which place I prefer. Kickstand consistently hits a home run with both their tater tots and fried pickles (they're served as spears encrusted with a panko-style breading) while the fried pickles at Bad Daddy's (which are sliced thin and coated with a fine breading) tend to be a little too salty and quickly get mushy if they sit around for more than a few minutes. Kickstand also serves some pretty tasty burgers, my faves being The Kickstand (signature burger mixed with sundried tomato onions, basil, and garlic and topped with cranberry chutney, carmelized onions, and baked brie) and the Cross-Country (basted with citrus bbq sauce and topped with pico de gallo, guacamole, pepper jack cheese, and jalapeno cilantro spread). However, especially upon reflecting on my most recent visits, I think Bad Daddy's produces better burgers. My favorites include the Sam I Am (basic burger topped with American cheese, over easy fried egg, rosemary ham, and pesto) and the Frenchie (turkey burger, brie, applewood smoked bacon, grilled apples, & garlic mayo) and I always get tater tots on the side. 

Top Left: beef-version of the Frenchie with tater tots; Top Right: Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with sweet potato fries; Bottom Left: Fried Pickles; Bottom Right: a close up of the gloriousness that is the Frenchie

Bad Daddy's Burger Bar
On our most recent visit to Bad Daddy's, BFTB went with the Grilled Buffalo Chicken Sandwich (6 oz. chicken breast tossed in buffalo sauce, blue cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, & ranch dressing) while I ordered my usual Frenchie with a beef patty swapped in for the turkey patty (I'm convinced that turkey is a fowl choice at Bad Daddy's... hehehe). We started with the fried pickles, which, per usual, were delicious (especially when dunked in the creamy ranch dressing) but quickly morphed into a soggy, greasy mess. As far as our meals go, BFTB felt pretty ambivalent about his chicken sandwich and thought that it was less than flavorful, but was happy about his decision to get sweet potato fries as a side. My burger, on the other hand, was really, really good. The juicy patty was cooked to a legitimate medium temperature (just as I'd requested!) and the brie and garlic mayo combined to form a creamy, rich, and flavorful goo that oozed all over the nooks and crannies of the bacon and beef. Hands down, my favorite component was the grilled apple -it was thinly sliced, but provided a delightful amount of crunch, tartness, and sweetness to the otherwise savory sandwich. While the whole thing was messy in an "oh snap, I just ate a pound of grease"-type of way, it was 100% worth the calories. As far as burgers go, Bad Daddy's is a solid go-to for Charlotteans and gets a strong 8/10.

Top: Hungover Cyclist; Bottom Left: Kickstand Burger with tater tots;
Bottom Right: burger topped with brie, caramelized onions, bacon, and garlic mayo

The last time my little brother was in town, we visited Kickstand for lunch to satisfy his burger craving. I'm convinced that Alex's stomach is a black hole for all things meaty and salty, so I was not even slightly shocked when he ordered the Hungover Cyclist (a beef patty and tomato sandwiched between two grilled cheeses) and a side of fries. I went with the Kickstand and a side of tots. Everything was pretty good, but was served a little cooler than I'd prefer.  Unlike the melty, oozy brie/garlic/apple/bacon combo at Bad Daddy's, the Kickstand burger seemed to just be a bunch of separate ingredients that all happened to be placed in between the same bun. Nothing really seemed like it was meant to go together, and the cranberry chutney seemed weird rather than complementary (and this is coming from the number one fan of a salty/sweet combo). Regardless, we both wolfed down our meals and had few complaints... it just wasn't extraordinary. I returned to Kickstand a little later and decided to try and replicate the Frenchie by ordering a Build Your Own Burger and topping it with brie, caramelized onions, bacon, and garlic mayo. It was very, very tasty and there were a few aspects that were superior to the Bad Daddy's version: (1) the meat was less greasy and it had a stronger, beefier flavor and (2) the garlic mayo was garlicky-er and richer than its counterpart from across town. However, without the crucial slice of grilled apple, it just didn't stand a chance against the original. Regardless, Kickstand makes a solid burger and the restaurant is worthy of my somewhat frequent visits. For burgers, Kickstand gets a 7.5/10.

Bad Daddy's Burger Bar on Urbanspoon Kickstand Charlotte Burgers and Bar on Urbanspoon  

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